For the past six years, I have published my top ten list of best albums of the year on Facebook. I wanted to keep up the annual tradition, but I wanted to do more than just list the albums. So, this year I’ve come up with the same list, but offered much more depth on my thinking: why they’re the best, what they do so well, and what’s interesting about them.
Let me outline my rules. First, I can only include albums I actually listened to in full. Second, the album must have been released in 2019. So, I cannot include albums I listened to endlessly this year that are not actually from this year (for example, Wildflower by The Avalanches, which I would have listed as my personal favorite album of the year except that it came out in 2016). Finally, for the singles list, they cannot be known to be associated with an upcoming album; they must be standalone singles.
This year was particularly good for music. I keep a running list on my laptop of what I have considered to be good releases, including albums, singles, and EPs. When going back over my list this year, I had over twenty albums to choose from. I normally also include a disappointments section, but there is no need this year because I didn’t have any. There were certainly albums that didn’t live up to my expectations, but I wouldn’t by any stretch of the imagination say that they were bad albums, just not quite as incredible as I had thought they would be, and that’s just poor expectation setting on my part.
Without further ado, let’s get to the list!
Album #10: Closer to Grey by Chromatics
This album opens with a chilling cover of “Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, surrounded by the sound of ticking clocks. Frankly, listening to that alone sold this album for me. The rest follows suit, providing the Drive-esque feeling that we know and love from Chromatics. Those late-night pulsing beats are ever-present, and Radelet’s ethereal breaths whisper sentiments in your ear like a voice in the wind.
Album #9: Superbloom by Ra Ra Riot
Despite being a longtime Ra Ra Riot fan, I did not have high hopes for this album. The band appeared to have peaked with The Orchard, tried something that didn’t work that well with Beta Love, and had attempted a return to form with Need Your Light, which had some good tracks but ultimately didn’t stand out. So when I saw Superbloom, released to little fanfare and excitement in my music circles, I did not expect much. Ho. Ly. Shit. You guys, this album is fantastic. Ra Ra Riot decided to take Superbloom in a slightly different direction from their norm, and it just works. The album is fun from back to front, and feels light and like a breath of fresh air. It lets me just relax, and makes me feel that things will be alright. We all need that from time to time, so if you’re looking for some music to bring you up, look no further than Superbloom.
Album #8: Remind Me Tomorrow by Sharon Van Etten
This album is one of a number of albums that I listened to this year because of an episode of Song Exploder, a podcast where artists break down one of their songs, piece by piece, and tell the story of how they were made. And boy am I glad I listened to that episode. Remind Me Tomorrow is a soft meditation on looking back on your youth, and the lessons you learn as you get older, confessing your secrets to close friends, and reflecting on your mistakes. I hadn’t listened to much Sharon Van Etten prior, but the backing electronic components drew me in. What kept me listening were Van Etten’s soft, soothing vocals, telling a story both new and familiar.
Album #7: I Am Easy to Find by The National
It’s an album by The National. It’s fantastic, obviously. Time to move on…
I’m kidding, but like many other albums by The National, this album showcases their signature style. It swings between sweet softness and danceable guitar-filled rock. Matt Berninger’s voice tells stories of relationships, of love and loss, of sentimentality and becoming your parents while simultaneously trying to escape them. I Am Easy To Find is accompanied by a short film of the same name. A half hour long, the short stars Alicia Vikander and tells the story of one woman’s life, in its entirety, from birth to death. The short, like the album, is beautiful and emotional, striking chords with small moments that resonate with us throughout our lives. The short is well worth watching, and the album complements the film, acting as both soundtrack and as an extra source of emotion for the central character of the film.
Album #6: Pang by Caroline Polachek
Caroline Polachek returns from her hiatus, following the closure of Chairlift, with some excellent solo material. Her voice, as always, is the standout on the album, but the backing music also piques interest. The lyrics are, naturally, filled with creative metaphor and simile, rewarding repeat listens. The ethereal reverberations alongside strings of piano notes make this album a dark, sprightly, fully realized creation.
Album #5: Outer Peace by Toro y Moi
While I had heard of Toro y Moi before this year, I hadn’t ever given them a listen. And, if I say so myself, Outer Peace is a great place to start. Reminiscent a bit of ODESZA in some of the electronica sounds, and of Neon Indian in the vocals and general approach, Toro y Moi manages to put out an album with songs that I could both hear at a club and at a local music night. This album is very danceable, and just gets you moving, even if you’re by yourself.
Album #4: Crushing by Julia Jacklin
This album is queen of the genre I call “soft female vocals with excellent lyricism invoking a kind of melancholy and nostalgia.” Past leaders of this genre have included Courtney Barnett and Lucy Dacus, but with her sophomore album Julia Jacklin takes the crown this year. The perfect mood music, this album grabbed my emotions by the shoulders, and told them that they mattered and were worthy of expression. There are moments on the record that evade description, and are worth just listening to and experiencing, so I’ll stop trying now.
Album #3: Devastation by Pumarosa
I loved Pumarosa’s first album, The Witch. But when I heard they were releasing a follow-up, I tried to mitigate my expectations to soften the blow of the typical sophomore slump. Fortunately for me, such mitigation proved unnecessary. Devastation is just as strange and weird as Pumarosa’s debut, and thrives because of it. From the offbeat drums to the instruments whose sounds I can’t quite place, all of the disparate parts feel like they shouldn’t work, but when put together, they just do. The drums are absolutely the standout on this album, and are worth paying close attention to. With two fantastic albums behind them, I eagerly look forward to their future.
Album #2: The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater-Kinney
Four years ago, Sleater-Kinney made their comeback after a 10-year hiatus with No Cities to Love. It was the first Sleater-Kinney album I had listened to, and I immediately fell in love with the band and listened to all their old albums. After a while, I worried their comeback had been a one-time event. My worries were answered with the release of The Center Won’t Hold, an album that builds on the band’s punk roots by adding industrial sounds, creating an urgency, a feeling of needing to be heard and spoken to. From sex and love to musings on the future, the album aims to rock the listener and get them to feel like something big is going to happen. Punk ain’t dead, as Sleater-Kinney can tell you, but things can’t last as they are for long. Time to make sure we can weather the coming storm.
Before I get to my favorite of the year, you might have noticed that I did not include Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend or i,i by Bon Iver on my list. Neither are my number one pick, even though I’ve loved both bands in the past. I feel like I should address this.
I enjoyed both albums, but I felt like neither was truly good enough to place in the Top 10. Father of the Bride was released to high expectations, since VW’s other three albums are basically perfect. But Father of the Bride had a number of songs I just couldn’t get into, such as “Rich Man,” “My Mistake,” “Spring Snow,” and “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin.” Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of great songs on the album, like “Sympathy” and “This Life,” but the whole album didn’t cohere.
As for Bon Iver, I felt like i,i was a compromise between 22 A Million and For Emma, Forever Ago. Like most compromises, it left neither party happy. I loved both 22 A Million and For Emma, Forever Ago, but by not committing fully in either direction, I found myself wanting more of one or the other. It’s still a good album — I wouldn’t turn it off if it came on the radio — but if I were to put on a Bon Iver album, i,i would not be a my go-to.
And now, for my favorite album of the year!
Album #1: Immunity by Clairo
This. Album. The raw emotion on every song tugs at your heartstrings. The lyrics put you back in high school, recalling the trials of figuring out what is going on inside your mind and body and feeling like almost no one can help. Every song feels at once personal and recognizable. The first track, “Alewife,” explores the night Clairo avoided committed suicide by talking on the phone with a close friend. The way she talks about how such a simple phone call saved her life is so succinct and poignant that you think the album could only possibly go down from such a high point. But it doesn’t. On “Sofia,” Clairo tries to serenade a crush, exploring her bisexuality by saying that she thinks Sofia and she could “do it if we tried,” expressing both hesitance and confidence that is so emblematic of being a young adult. These sentiments and contemplations are accompanied by lo-fi pop beats, which explore new territory with every song and continue to impress and surprise throughout the record. And Clairo is doing all of this on her debut album. If you listen to one album from this year, let it be this one.
Honorable Mentions: Soundtracks
I consider soundtracks separately from more traditional albums since they are inseparable from the media that they score. Here are three that I loved.
First is the soundtrack to Afterparty, a video game about trying to escape Hell by outdrinking Satan. This soundtrack is made by scntfc, and is experimental and interesting. It fits the atmosphere of bar music for demons, while also pulsing with excitement for the tenser moments of the game. Great background music, and suits the game perfectly while also just being cool to listen to.
Second is the Watchmen soundtrack, done by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. So far they have released three volumes of music for the TV series, and it is a unique combination of Nine Inch Nails music from a variety of eras and other, more conventional music. What I find so fascinating about this soundtrack is that it can have one track of electronic industrial music immediately followed by a blues or jazz track that seems to distill that genre to its essences. Excellent music to study to, like all of Reznor’s soundtracks.
Third is the soundtrack for The Mandalorian, composed by Ludwig Göransson. While not exactly John Williams, the music here sets a tone, and helps give the show the exact Western feel it’s going for. It’s worth noting that the same composer created the soundtracks for Black Panther and both Creed films. That same attention to detail shows in The Mandalorian’s soundtrack — and results in the best kind of traditional, classical composition.
Top Five Singles
I’ll just quickly run through my top five singles.
- Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry) by Glass Animals
- Eclipse (Ashley) by Braids
- Death Stranding by CHVRCHES
- Someday (triple j Like A Version) by Julia Jacklin
- Next Mistake by Icona Pop
Haim’s three singles have also been excellent, but even though they haven’t officially announced a new album, I have a very hard time believing that three new singles won’t be part of an upcoming record, so I did not include them. Plus I can’t have my list be all Haim. That just wouldn’t be fair.
That wraps it up for this year! Thank you for reading all the way to the end. I’ll see you next year with my best of 2020 list!